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The Morning News Tournament of Books

The Tournament of Books is an annual battle royale between 16 of the best novels published in the previous year.

A new match is played here each weekday in March.

The 2009 ToB Contenders List

The 2009 Judges & Brackets

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Previous years: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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John: At the start of her judgment, Monica Ali, a 2007 tournament participant as a competitor, articulates yet another method for comparing the un-comparable, using a book’s own ambitions as a measuring stick against its actual accomplishment.

Personally, I kind of like it. If enough people had embraced this standard when our first book (My First Presidentiary: A Scrapbook of George W. Bush) came out we might have won a major book award since I truly believe we achieved a kind of metaphysical ideal of the political satire done primarily in colored pencil.

What’s interesting to me is that even if we codified this standard, we’d still come up with different conclusions because each of us creates a different measuring stick. I enjoyed both books, but I feel like Ali gives Hemon’s intentions more credit than they deserve. Hemon is a mega-talent, no doubt. The guy writes amazing prose, but the book, as you and I discussed off-air, comes across as a thinly fictionalized tale of a writer with Aleksandar Hemon’s biography trying to write a book about a murdered immigrant.

On the one hand, that sounds deliciously self-referential and complicated. On a practical level, however, the book always felt like two books, and I was really only absorbed by the story of Lazarus Averbuch’s death. Brik’s emotional journey often felt forced. I got the sense in reading that Hemon was also fascinated by the Averbuch story, but at some point became more interested in his own fascination than in Averbuch himself. That’s interesting and powerful psychological territory, and I really did like the book, but in the end, in contrast to Ms. Ali, felt like it fell a fair bit short of its own ambitions.

In contrast, The Northern Clemency is, in my opinion, exactly what it was supposed to be. On its surface, I couldn’t be less interested in the subject and milieu, a multi-family social realist novel spanning several decades primarily set in Northern England. But by the time I got rolling, I was completely absorbed and fascinated by the world that Hensher conjured.

In her New York Times review, Sophie Gee says, “Hensher’s novel is tremendously adroit, reminding us of what it’s like to sink luxuriously into the great novels of an earlier era: all-inclusive, interconnected, lavishly detailed, ample.” I couldn’t agree more.

However, the next line of the review is, “And yet, for the same reasons, it’s tremendously dull,” with which I couldn’t agree less. Gee goes on to say that, The Northern Clemency is, “a book that seems to have been written too many times already.”

We all seem to agree that The Northern Clemency hit the mark of its ambitions. We just disagree on the worth of those ambitions.

Kevin: I chuckled at the assertion that The Northern Clemency had been written too many times already. You might just as well point out that all stories have been written too many times already—“Why, I first read The Lazarus Project when they called it Everything Is Illuminated!”—but that’s just pointless.

It’s true the world doesn’t need more novels of any kind. The act of writing them can sometimes feel like trucking sand into the Sahara, but we have an innate desire not only to repeat the same stories, but to hear variations on them again and again. It’s probably a survival instinct, designed to ensure we remember the one about not poking the sleeping boar with a stick. If you’ve already read an English family drama that doesn’t mean you won’t thoroughly enjoy reading The Northern Clemency, and if you’ve read Foer’s book (which has a similar plot and structure to The Lazarus Project) that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read Hemon’s. Literary genres aren’t like beers from around the world, to be crossed off one at a time until the bartender presents you with a valkyrie helmet.

Hemon is a terrific writer, so good that we should probably stop mentioning that he didn’t start writing in English until he was in his thirties, which makes it sound like we’re handicapping him. It’s amazing how inventive Hemon is with words. Maybe he’s able to think of turns in English sentences we wouldn’t because he doesn’t take our native tongue for granted, or maybe the translator in his head twists them in wonderful ways. Whatever it is, he puts on a good show.

Still, reading Monica Ali’s judgment I wonder if, like you, I applied exactly the same reasonable standard and came up with a different opinion. I live in Chicago, where much of The Lazarus Project takes place, and so maybe I am countering a Midwestern bias when I say how much I loved The Northern Clemency. Yes, it’s an old-fashioned kind of novel (and yes it takes awhile to get going) but it’s a beautiful old-fashioned novel, and we really can’t have too many good ones.

Reader Comments

On March 16, 2009 at 10:34 AM Brian Hurley said…

I felt like The Lazarus Project was a strong rebuke of the conclusions that Foer reaches in his book. Call that a variation if you like, but I think it varies so much it becomes a counter-argument. Foer thinks we can find redemption in the past; Hemon makes it impossible.

On March 16, 2009 at 3:15 PM Mike D. said…

Kevin, why is that "pointless"? Isn't it reasonable to ask a writer to at least -attempt- to tell a story that hasn't been told before, or at least in an original manner? Is it unreasonable to ask the author to get out of his own way and just tell the more interesting story, not the story about the telling of the story?

On March 16, 2009 at 3:25 PM Kim said…

If we insist on unique stories for novels we'll have far fewer books to read with potentially odder and odder plots. I certainly want the family sagas to feel different, badly paraphrasing Tolstoy, all good families have the same story, all bad families have their own story, but ultimately a family saga is confined to a certain structure that breeds some similarity. I don't want to read them all the time, but there is an attraction to picking up a certain genre and enjoying the basic similarities.